Ilkka Herlin is the University of Helsinki’s Alumnus of the Year 2020

Ilkka Herlin, historian and Cargotec's chairman of the board, says that a major mistake in modern culture has been its attempt to control the cycle of nature. Technology must be adapted to be a part of the natural system.

The University of Helsinki Alumni Association has elected Cargotec's chairman of the board and environmental influencer Ilkka Herlin as Alumnus of the Year 2020.

The Alumnus/Alumna of the Year is a positive ambassador for the University of Helsinki. Each year, a person who has supported the principles of the University of Helsinki, the appreciation of academic education and the academic spirit of Helsinki is elected.

As the Alumnus of the Year, Herlin intends to talk about the urgency of combating climate change and the collapse of biodiversity.

"Man must move from the grand systems he has created to co-exist in harmony with nature. Technology must be adapted to be part of the natural system. A major mistake in modern culture is that it has tried to control the cycle of nature", says Herlin.

At Qvidja, his farm in Parainen, Herlin is experimenting with a certain technique within agriculture and forestry, which increases biodiversity and binds carbon dioxide from the air to the soil instead of being a carbon source.

The mechanism is a so-called microbial carbon pump where fungi and bacteria permanently bind carbon to the soil. The microbes use the carbon from the photosynthesis, and when the microbes die, their structures stay on the ground for a long time and form a permanent carbon storage.

Mycorrhizae fungi live in symbiosis with not only trees but also crops. The mycorrhizae provides the plants with nutrients and the mushroom receives carbon from the plant. When the crop is harvested, the fungus and its carbon remain in the soil.

"The most important thing is the continuous, living vegetation cover in the fields and in the forests", says Herlin.

Essential for the method is that the soil must not be modified to prevent the mycelium from degrading. Excessive fertilization must also be avoided, since easily soluble fertilizers make fungi useless for plants.

Today Qvidja is a flagship of the Carbon Action carbon farming project within soil, air and water research. The project involves over a hundred farmers from all over Finland.

Historical research is understanding the wider picture

Herlin began his history studies at the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Humanities, in 1978. In 1993, he defended his Ph.D. The subject of his dissertation was his grandfather, ethnologist Gustav Vilkuna (1902-1980).

However, the main focus of Herlin's research career has been in the history of science and technology and in the quest to understand how the large systems work.

"My research career has enabled me to develop the ability and persistence to read difficult articles about new fields and topics. Historical research is about understanding the big picture, which becomes more important every day", Herlin says.

Herlin continued as a researcher at the Academy of Finland until the year 2000, after which he switched path and began working within business and the environment instead.

Innovations can't be ordered

Herlin has been involved in numerous startups and eco-innovations. What is the recipe for innovation?

"Basic research, which has no predetermined objective of turning into innovation, is essential. All that I am involved in is born from an uncompromising basic research and marginal subjects - and only later it is combined with solution-oriented thinking."

Herlin believes that values ​​must be included in the implementation phase to create solutions instead of new problems.

"If creating innovation is the key target, we're going about it the wrong way."


Public Lecture of the Alumnus of the Year AlumniForum: Wednesday 8 April 2020 16.30pm

"What if we can move from a destructive relationship with nature to a healing one? Live in harmony as part of nature?"

Location: Think Corner, Yliopistonkatu 4

Registration: On the Alumni Association website


Additional Information: Alumni Association website

All Alumni of the Year

Founded in 1990, the Alumni Association of the University of Helsinki has more than 7,300 members. The purpose of alumni activities is to maintain contact between former students of the university, to support the university's goals and corporate and community relations, and to strengthen the prestige of academic education and the academic spirit. All former and present students and staff members of the university are alumni.

Alumnus of the Year, Ilkka Herlin

* Chairman of the Board of Cargotec, a cargo-handling company, and environmental influencer.

* Born in Helsinki in January 1959.

* Began his history studies at the University of Helsinki in autumn 1978.

* Dissertation in 1993. The subject of the dissertation was his grandfather, ethnologist Gustav Vilkuna.

* As a historian, he studied the history of science and technology.

* Has made efforts to protect the Baltic Sea since the early 1990s. The work has given birth to the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG), Soilfood oy, a regenerative recycling company and Q Power, a renewable energy company. Herlin is the founder alongside with his wife in all these.

* Has experimented on his farm with carbon farming which is agriculture that binds carbon to the soil. The experiment has expanded into a Finland wide Carbon Action carbon farming project.

* Five children.

* Hobbies include trotters, elk hunting, Asthana yoga and family sailing on their H-boat.